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We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.
David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.
A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.
The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.
Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.
Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.
Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.
Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.
The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.
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Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Serendipity
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Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”
We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”
Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.
The first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.
The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.
The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–”Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.
This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.
The Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.
The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885″ rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.
We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.
Science Writing at AWP 2013 March 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, Serendipity
We’ve written about our fondness for attending science-oriented panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference on a number of occasions (see HERE and HERE and the links in these posts). This year—earlier this month—we were able to attend two science-writing panels at AWP, “Science Writing for All” and “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction.”
The moderator for “Science Writing for All,” science journalist Robert Frederick, opened the panel with a nerdy science—GPS—quip: “According to something in space, it’s 1:30p.m.” That set the tone for the panel and for trying to live up to the panel’s title, namely that science and science writing is everywhere and for everyone.
A constant reference point for the panel was the forthcoming book Science Writer’s Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Each panel member was a contributor to this text, and each made at least one reference to it. Though we haven’t seen a copy of it yet, Doug will be ordering one for the university’s library. The panelists made it seem like a lively collection chock-full of practical, pragmatic advice for the aspiring science writer.
Frederick used the book as a launching point for his presentation. “Is this science writing?” Frederick asked while waving a hand towards a slide displaying an image of the gang from The Big Bang Theory. We’re huge fans of TBBT—though we watch it on DVD, several episodes in an evening, as opposed to in real time, so, please, no Season Six spoilers (we’re looking at you Brigid Leahy)—and when it became apparent that Frederick wasn’t just posing a rhetorical question for the panel to contemplate, Doug happily shouted, “Absolutely.” Other voices in the crowded conference room piped up in agreement. One image at a time, Frederick’s slides added NCIS, Sherlock, and Grey’s Anatomy to the conversation. Each time, he re-invoked his question and received affirmation from the rest of us. The audience hesitated only at the last image rendered, a Downton Abbey still. Frederick indicated that Downton Abbey, a favorite among writerly and literary types we know, probably wasn’t science writing, but, as a good scientist, he considered the series an unfinished experiment and was going to continue to collect data until he was certain one way or the other.
Frederick continued his effort to paint a portrait of the everywhereness of science and science writing by asserting that humans are always experimenting. While we are not all scientists, we are all experimenters. Even as children we try things out. Frederick experimented with playing in the dirt and with swimming, noting that the former was done in isolation but the latter encouraged others’ participation. He extended the experiment by combining dirt and water, leading to a clear response from his mother; she shrieked.
This panel covered a lot of ground, touching upon the role of craft for any science writer and the importance of metaphor and how scientists and science writers use language. Green houses, for instance, are good things, whereas greenhouse gas is insidious. Or the term genetic blueprint implies a designer; it works as a metaphor. While science writing can be about big ideas, the details—the words chosen—matter a great deal.
The other three panelists were Jill U. Adams, Jenny Cutraro, and Douglas Starr, which allowed the session to cover even more ground.
Adams is a scientist who runs a science fair for kids and who has written a lot of articles. One of her pieces in the Los Angeles Times examined the controversy of more than a year ago about whether schools could count pizza as a vegetable in the lunches they provide students. Who knew that tomato paste got special treatment that other purees don’t get? Who knew that tomato paste may actually earn its special treatment with more of vitamins A and C than green beans and more calcium and iron than applesauce? The point, for Adams, is that, in science writing, science is about people and policy.
Most of Cutraro’s recent work is science writing for kids and teachers, but she also brought up her previous job as a science writer at Purdue University, where she summarized—and thereby translated—science that was being done there. She pointed out how many places science writing happens, from hospitals to museums to television shows like NOVA to publications like National Geographic to The Learning Network website.
Cutraro had some specific pointers for those of us interested in writing for a young audience: use direct leads, define terms early on, limit each sentence to one scientific concept, use analogies that make sense to the audience, and don’t assume prior knowledge. These suggestions, of course, can be adapted for an adult, lay readership as well.
After hearing about all these places to publish science writing and tips for getting one’s work published, Starr gave sobering news: it’s difficult to make a living as a science writer. His suggestion—and his books Blood and The Killer of Little Shepherds bear this out—is to find areas where science overlaps with some other aspect of the world, such as science and the legal system or, as with Adams’ article, science and the school system. He also pointed out that, while the internet has undercut the importance of newspapers, the shift has opened a channel through which institutions directly connect with their constituencies or readers.
So, do you need a graduate program to teach you how to be a science writer? Starr says no but talked about what Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism teaches: how to think, how to dig into a story, how to interview, and how to structure a story. He recommend reading John McPhee’s recent article in The New Yorker called “Structure.” He also recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s book Rhetorical Figures in Science.
We’ll end this week’s post with that little snippet of serendipity, for Fahnestock was one of the faculty who trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants in English at the University of Maryland when Anna earned her MFA there. But return next week to read more about science writing at AWP.
Happy Birthday, Skylab May 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Chemistry, Physics
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On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched Skylab from Kennedy Space Center. As with other projects, like the Hubble Telescope, not everything was right with the first American space station at the beginning. But in-space repairs made real science in space—and living there—a reality for our generation.
Apollo astronauts like Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent time on Skylab, as did space shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. Fellow Illinoisan Joseph Kerwin became the first physician to be invited to train to go to space and spent 28 days in space. The 84 days of Skylab’s last mission now pales in comparison with stints on the International Space Station, and the percentage of days that Skylab was inhabited makes it looked little used. But at the time, this space station was pretty amazing and certainly paved the way for future low-Earth orbit projects.
What we remember most about Skylab is the anticipation of reentry in the summer of 1979. The space shuttle hadn’t been completed in time to save Skylab, to push it higher in orbit and extend its life for a few more years. Bets on the date of its demise were wagered, t-shirts were printed up, and rewards for pieces of the space station were offered by news organizations. We hoped its demise would come on the weekend and on our side of the globe, though all along NASA was shooting for the pieces to fall in the largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean, far from land and people who could be hit by burning bits of debris. On July 11, a Wednesday, Skylab fell to Earth, and we didn’t see it. NASA miscalculated the process and angles slightly, the spacecraft didn’t burn up fast enough, and some debris landed in Australia.
In many ways, as we look back on Skylab, it seems as if it, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, had been a television show we watched as kids, a bit of popular culture. The real science of it hadn’t made its way into our textbooks then. But it was real, and there’s proof at the National Air and Space Museum, where the second orbital workshop is on display. NASA had planned to send a second Skylab to space, so two complete space stations were manufactured. NASA doesn’t build spare spacecraft so that museum visitors can walk through them, imagining what it would be like to look down on the earth from 250 miles up. But that’s exactly what happened with Skylab, and it gave regular folks the rare opportunity to inhabit—to physically invest themselves in—the idea of living on a space station.
PurpleStride Chicago 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer April 27, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV
Tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 to raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Click HERE for our team page. That’s an opportunity for us to focus this post on a health sciences topic and consider some of the science related to our own bodies.
If you remember back to high school anatomy class, the pancreas, an organ about six inches long, sits horizontally behind the stomach. The head of the pancreas connects to the small intestine, where its secretions do their work on the food you eat. The job of the pancreas is to produce enzymes for the digestion process and hormones used for metabolism.
Pancreatic cancer has been in the news in recent years because Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, and professor and author of The Last Lecture Randy Pausch died from this cancer. (Watch Jobs’s 2005 speech at the end of a previous post HERE. Watch Pausch’s CMU “Last Lecture” HERE.) Jobs was 56, Swayze was 57, and Pausch was just 48, which might lead a person to believe that successful white men in their late forties and fifties are particularly at risk. But one of the things we’ve learned from talking with nurses these past few weeks is that pancreatic cancer can strike at almost any age—one nurse knew a 30-year-old nurse and the 89-year-old grandfather of another friend who’d been diagnosed in the last couple of weeks—and that the risk factors are poorly understood. Smokers, diabetics, and those with chronic pancreatitis are at greater risk, and more women than men contract this cancer.
As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, with a lifetime risk of about 1.4%, meaning that fewer than 3 in 200 people are ever diagnosed with this type of cancer. Compare that with the commonly cited lifetime risk of breast cancer: 1 in 8 women, or 12.5%. Or consider the overall lifetime risk of being diagnosed with any cancer: 45% for men, 38% for women, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for more info). The overall risk of dying from cancer, though, is better: 23% (1 in 4) for men, and 19.5% (1 in 5) for women. Statistics are tricky, of course, and tell us nothing about a particular individual and only some things about everybody else. Those numbers indicate many things, including that we are living long enough to develop cancer, which is more likely as we age, and that we are, in many cases, surviving cancer long enough to die of something else.
What’s especially disconcerting about pancreatic cancer, though, is that more than half of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after they’ve metastasized, when there exists no cure. The NIH reports even worse numbers than most resources, stating, “in more than 80% of patients the tumor has already spread and cannot be completely removed at the time of diagnosis.” Often, the first symptom is jaundice, which occurs after the cancer has spread to the liver. That late diagnosis contributes to a very discouraging survival rate, with roughly 6% of patients hitting that magical five-year goal, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for Cancer Facts & Figures 2011). Even if the tumor is localized and operable, the five-year surrvial rate is just 23%. In fact, just 26%—one in four—of patients are alive a mere one year after diagnosis. The numbers vary slightly from resource to resource, and these statistics capture information about the past (the 2011 report is based on numbers no later than 2007).
Statistically, several patients out of every hundred do stick around for years to come. If caught before the cancer spreads, the tumor is sometimes operable, which is the key to a potential cure. Research shows that surgery is much more successful if done at a hospital where the Whipple procedure—abdominal surgery almost as complicated as organ transplant—is performed regularly and if the surgeon is very experienced with the Whipple. Jobs, who had the slower-growing, more treatable of the two kinds of pancreatic cancer, waited nine months after diagnosis to have the Whipple surgery and still survived eight years. Even those who aren’t candidates for surgery can live several years; Swayze held out 20 months. For inoperable tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and newer NanoKnife technology can sometimes shrink the tumor and, thereby, improve quality of life. In some cases, these treatments make the tumor operable and the cancer possibly curable.
Pancreatic cancer is relatively slow growing, with tumors taking years to develop and even longer to metastasize. That long timeframe—before deadly metastasis—during which pancreatic cancer could be diagnosed and cured is excellent reason for research because a screening test or even a better understanding of risk factors that leads to early detection could drastically improve survival rates. Immunotherapy treatment is another area of worthwhile investigation for pancreatic cancer and for cancers more generally. In other words, pancreatic cancer seems an especially good target for medical research because answers could make big differences in outcomes and possibly could be adapted for screening techniques and treatment options for other cancers.
In addition, the American Cancer Society reports, “Since 1998, incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have been increasing by 0.8% per year in men and by 1.0% per year in women.” Pancreatic cancer is on the rise, as are death rates from this disease, and research needs to catch up. So tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 because scientific research matters can make big differences in our health and quality of life.
On This Date: Marlin Perkins March 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV
When we were just little kids, Sunday night meant kids television: The Wonderful World of Disney and, before it, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’d rush through dinner in anticipation of flying over a herd of antelope or sneaking up on a tiger, all before discovering that Kurt Russell was the strongest man in the world and an absent-minded professor had invented flubber.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom. He was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1905, and his first zoo job was as a groundskeeper at the St. Louis Zoological Park, for which he was paid $3.75 per week in 1926. He ran Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for eighteen years before returning as Director to the St. Louis Zoo.
While at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago area’s smaller, urban zoo, Perkins developed a television show called Zoo Parade. This show featured Perkins interacting with the zoo’s animals, just as Jim Fowler and Joan Embery later did on The Tonight Show. Chicago is no stranger to television production, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Oprah, and this locally based series made both the zoo and Perkins well known. We are no strangers to Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and is open every day, was Anna’s childhood zoo. In fact, her poem “At the Sea Lion Pool” appears in the new anthology City of the Big Shoulders. All photos in this post were taken at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010.
While many viewers of Wild Kingdom mistakenly remember Perkins being bitten by a poisonous snake on camera, the real story stems from Zoo Parade, when Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake during rehearsal. But the event wasn’t mentioned in the episode. That said, Perkins didn’t mind non-venomous snakes taking a chomp, if only to prove to Wild Kingdom viewers how harmless most snakes are.
Jim Fowler, the zoo director who had monkeys hugging Johnny Carson, got his start as Marlin Perkins’ sidekick on Wild Kingdom. Jim, in fact, is remembered fondly for doing much of the hard work, while Perkins narrated calmly. Eventually, in 1985, Perkins retired, and Jim hosted the show himself. Perkins died of cancer a year later.
As kids, we didn’t realize that most of the episodes we saw were reruns, though new episodes were filmed through 1987. We wouldn’t have cared anyway. Mister Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek were reruns too. It’s not as if we thought Perkins and Fowler were running away from a lumbering bull seal or that a mother elephant was charging Jim’s jeep at that very moment.
Wild Kingdom has been criticized, of course, for the way it created neat thirty-minute stories and for the human-centered way it talked about animals. Admittedly, the show was filmed and edited to provide viewers like us with some Sunday evening drama. But as opposed to much of today’s reality television, Wild Kingdom claimed that nothing was staged to tell a preconceived story and that they didn’t do things that would put animals in danger. That’s a slippery argument, of course, because driving a jeep toward a mother elephant or lassoing an alligator for relocation could be considered staging, and, to anthropomorphize for a second, that alligator might have defined harm differently. But for the 1970s, Wild Kingdom was relatively progressive in its portrayal of and interaction with animals in the their natural habitats.
Now, the show seems dated. In the episode “Lion Country” (see the video below), we may question the opening sequence that ends with a lion standing over a zebra carcass, a bloody chunk eaten from the prey’s buttocks. Was that really what parents wanted their little tykes to see before the magical stories of Disney? For its time, Wild Kingdom was pretty honest about the ups and downs of life as we—animals—know it.
We may question the next segment of “Lion Country” too, as we spend some time with Marlin Perkins in his office for a brief background lecture on lions. Perkins holds W. K., the well-dressed, affectionate chimp named after the show’s title. On Perkins’ desk, Lester, a young lion, is snacking on some ground meat. W. K. pats Lester on the head. It’s a cheesy, everyone-gets-along if we all play by the rules situation.
Perkins’ lecture, though, goes on to talk about how a young lion must learn to be king of the jungle, that he’s not born with the skills and behaviors he will need to survive as a lion. While an oversimplified explanation of the importance of nurture (but at least posed in addition to, not versus, nature), where else on television was an American kid in the the early 1970s going to see images of Africa or hear about how animals learn? Perkins goes on to talk about hunting as an art and about lions having their own culture, though he doesn’t use the word culture. (For a related post on animals and empathy, click HERE.) Is he anthropomorphizing, or presaging current investigation into animal intelligence?
Guest Blog: Daniel Lewis March 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Museums & Archives
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At the end of last year, we wrote about the Huntington Library‘s “Beautiful Science” exhibit HERE. That exhibit was curated by Daniel Lewis, Chief Curator of Manuscripts (History of Science, Medicine, and Technology) and today’s guest blogger. If you can’t get to the Huntington Library yourself, you can watch a YouTube lecture about the exhibit by Lewis HERE.
Daniel Lewis is the author of the new book The Feathery Tribe and draws his guest post from his research into what it means to be an ornithologist. Whether or not you like birds, you’ll find that Lewis’s writing shows his enthusiasm for inquiry, his attention to detail, and his ability to make new, intriguing connections.
THE FEATHERY TRIBE: WHAT RESEARCH MEANS FOR WRITING
I mostly live to write. But more, I live to do original research, rooting around the sometimes-dusty (but often very clean) byways and side-roads of archives around the world, looking for correspondence that has often never been read by anyone other than the original recipient, and virtually none of which has ever been published. It’s a truism that it might take weeks of research to come up with a single sentence for a book. And it’s this kind of research that keeps the hamster wheel in my brain spinning and keeps me moving forward.
I’m an obsessive recorder and transcriber of archival information, storing correspondence I find in a database that records (among many other details) the correspondents, the date, the location written, the text of the letter itself, its call number and the collection it’s from, homegrown subject headings, a summary of the letter, and even where I transcribed the letter (dining room table, airport, hotel room, airplane, etc.). In the course of my most recent book The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, just out from Yale University Press, I transcribed some 1,892 letters totaling 446,000 words, culled from archives around the world: the Natural History Museum in London; the Blacker-Wood Library in Montreal; the Smithsonian; the Bancroft Library in Berkeley; my own home institution, the Huntington Library; and others. I took all of this information, digested it, and tried to bend it into a particular notion.
I had an idea—after corresponding with the late great evolutionist Ernst Mayr, then in his nineties—that I should write a book about what it meant to be a professional in science, using the Smithsonian’s first Curator of Birds, Robert Ridgway, as the lens. What, after all, did it actually mean to be a professional then, and why did it matter? The answer can’t be reduced to a pat phrase, so I’ll resist doing so here, but it was the quest for the archival materials—correspondence, scribbled memos, postcards, marginalia—that fueled me.
Research turns up all kinds of things, some of which I was able to use in the book, but necessarily, much else that I couldn’t. Scientists are people too, as I’m fond of saying, but they also bring a wonky precision to their letters that can thrill.
People writing about birds for descriptive purposes took a variety of approaches to shorten, simplify, and clarify bird identities. One common practice was to refer exclusively to a number in a standard checklist as a shorthand reference in correspondence, assuming the recipient had the same guide in hand. Naturalists’ and collectors’ letters the world over were thus often filled with long strings of numbers, rather than bird names. Referring to a common checklist’s numbering system, a British birder writes in 1907 to his brother, “Before joining the main road, I saw a Reed Bunting; counting up, I found I had [seen eleven different birds]: 220.127.116.11.18.104.22.1689.277.278.453.”
Some inventive collectors went so far as to suggest new symbological languages to identify, with a single symbol, such things as a male bird in its first plumage, a male in mature plumage, a bird of unknown sex but of a determinate age, and so on, as noted in the image above.
Letters like these intrigue, and for me, they warrant going down a rabbit hole (almost always dusty) to find out more about scientists’ motivations, urges, and idiosyncratic passions. In the case of the people writing about birds, it was all that they wanted to do. “I am still in the medical profession (I see you took your degree too) but I don’t like it a bit. My life is ornithology,” one German physician wrote to a Smithsonian staffer in 1899, one who also happened to have earned a medical degree but then took a job working with birds.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, and often with great expertise in other areas, numerous people happily applied innovation to the discipline of ornithology. Passionate comments like this ornithologist’s motivated me to look at intersections of all kinds in trying to reach a meaningful set of descriptions of just what constituted a professional in science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Opportunity Knocks January 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Chemistry, Mars
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On January 25, 2004, a robotic rover called Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars, our closest neighbor planet. Opportunity’s life story is a good model for thinking about our own human goals. It took more than five months and more than 34 million miles to get there, but that day marked the beginning of the rover’s real work. The next 21-plus miles has been the exciting part of the journey for scientists. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to last 90 Martian days, which are just over 39 minutes longer than Earth days.
By its second day on Mars, Opportunity had a joint problem with a robotic arm that is supposed to be stowed when it moves. But the rover—and NASA—made do and eventually developed a way to move safely without stowing the arm. For months in 2005, Opportunity was stuck in the sand. Again, the rover—and NASA—patiently inched around and eventually started roving again.
All this time, Opportunity has been collecting soil samples, monitoring the climate, and sending back amazing photographs of the Martian landscape. The rover is basically a moving science mini-laboratory. It x-rays and performs microscopic imaging of rock and soil samples, then sends analyses of constituent elements back to Earth. Its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer examines rocks and soil to figure out how they were formed. Scientists are especially interested to know whether and when water may have existed on Mars. In December, NASA announced that Opportunity had examined what seemed to be gypsum deposited in veins by water.
As of this month, seven years after its landing, Opportunity sits on the north end of Cape York, which is on the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is still looking around and conducting measurements, including Doppler tracking. The robotic arm is still working; it positioned the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on January 12.
Opportunity’s twin, called Spirit, landed three weeks before Opportunity on January 4, 2004. Before the end of the month, Spirit faced a flash memory problem. NASA spent ten days reformatting, patching, and testing in order to fix the problem. Luckily, the fix worked and was applied to Opportunity as well. Even after Spirit got stuck in 2009, the rover continued to send back information. NASA’s final contact with Spirit was on March 10, 2010, more than six years after its landing. A little bit of failure goes a long way to success.
Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011. It is currently cruising (it’s in the cruise phase of the mission) and will arrive on Mars after 193 more days, in August. This rover is much bigger than its twin predecessors and will check out the Red Planet in ways that will help us plan a mission to put human beings on the surface of Mars. Of course, Curiosity will live up to its name by studying the planet’s geological evolution, radiation levels, and chemical makeup.
Few people are as enthusiastic about the Mars rovers as Ken Kremer. He does a lot of work processing the images that Mars rovers send back. Read his Lofty Ambitions guest post HERE. See his work at Universe Today HERE and HERE.
To read Anna’s very different take on the Mars rovers and how they can inspire a writing life, read her guest post “Curiouser and Curiouser” at Chandra Hoffman’s blog HERE.
As we celebrate today’s anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, consider the meaning of that word. John F. Kennedy once pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for the word crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger but the other meaning opportunity. We’re not sure we should learn Chinese from Kennedy, but the notion points to the relationship between failure and success about which we’ve written before here at Lofty Ambitions. What is the set of circumstances or conditions that will make it possible to accomplish something? How will we create our next opportunity, perhaps inch our way out of a metaphorical sand dune or take care of that all too real bum shoulder joint? Sometimes, it takes 34 million miles to get where you need to be, only to find out that the fun is in the next 21 miles of meandering. Is there an opportunity knocking—or knocking you over?
On This Date: Lunar Eclipse & More! December 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Railroads, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we set our alarm for 5:30a.m. so that we could take a look at the total lunar eclipse. A total eclipse had occurred earlier this year, in June, but it wasn’t visible from North America.
The moon hung in our western sky, its face three-quarters in shadow. We watched the slow process, which takes several hours, for about ten minutes. Then set the alarm for 6:15a.m. to see how much it had changed. By then, the sun was rising over our backs, and the moon had sunk behind trees that line the street a couple of blocks away. Still, we could make out the reddish glow of the lunar orb.
If you remember your grade-school science lessons, you’ll recall that a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the Sun’s rays from striking the Moon. Lunar eclipses are beautiful in part because the alignment necessary happens to occur when the Moon is full. In fact, even before the eclipse, last night’s Moon was striking.
We didn’t brush up on our how-to-photograph-the-Moon instructions, but Universe Today has some amazing photos and a video HERE. MSNBC also has a great collection of photos HERE. A Seattle blogger also has amazing shots from around the globe HERE.
If you missed this weekend’s eclipse, mark your calendar for April 15, 2014.
If you’re looking for other events to commemorate today, it’s the anniversary of the awarding of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year.
Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the chemistry prize for his work on dilute solutions and how they behaved, mathematically speaking, like gasses. In his address, he espoused the role of imagination in science.
The prize in physiology or medicine that year went to Emil von Behring, who came up with the diphtheria vaccine and also a serum to prevent tetanus. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster in more than ten years, you could commemorate this anniversary with the CDC-recommended tetanus shot to prevent the potentially deadly bacterial infection of the nervous system. Of course, consult your doctor because contraindications exist too.
There’s some controversy as to whether von Behring should have shared the financial rewards for the diphtheria serum and the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich, who shared the prize in 1908 for work in immunity. A year later, Ehrlich developed a cure for syphilis, though even now, no vaccine is available.
Today is also the anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental flight across the United States and the first cross-country airmail, which began on September 17, 1911. Clearly, not a nonstop! In fact, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, great-grandson of Matthew Perry, stopped 70 times (not all planned), finally landing in Long Beach, California, on December 10. The last twenty miles from Pasadena had included two stops and a broken ankle. To celebrate and fully complete his transit, the pilot taxied his plane (the Vin Fizz, named to advertise a grape soda) into the Pacific Ocean. Only a few months later, on April 3, 1912, in a sad bit of irony, Rodgers, who had received about 90 minutes of flight instruction before his first solo in June 1911, perished when his exhibition flight over Long Beach ended in the ocean near where he had completed his transcontinental trek.
We end today’s post with an excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was born on this date in 1830. Though the poem isn’t about a lunar eclipse (the full poem is available at The Academy of American Poets), it does resonate with our viewing early this morning:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (LAUNCH PHOTOS!) September 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup
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This morning, GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) launched aboard a Delta II Heavy rocket at 9:08:52a.m. Doug stood across the water from Launch Pad 17B of Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Here are our photographs to prove it!
TO READ the previous segments in this series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” click on the following links: